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Badging breakthroughs

Digital microcredential provide a fuller picture of students’ and teachers’ skills
  • LIFE-SAVING SKILLS—Students at Corona Norca USD earn badges outside the classroom in a CPR-certification course given by the local fire department. The 53,000-student district near Los Angeles believes it may offer more digital badges than any other school system in the nation.
  • REWARDING PD—Badges issued for demonstrating tech skills qualify teachers for classroom Chromebook carts in the Alamance-Burlington School System in North Carolina.

Next time you want to reward students or teachers for going above and beyond, consider how you might turn that recognition into something substantial—something a high-achiever can add to a résumé or an e-portfolio.

Give them a digital badge for excelling in a skill such as teamwork or leadership, and they can take it with them as evidence after they graduate or should they seek advancement in their careers.

A growing number of districts now award digital badges to students who demonstrate creativity and critical thinking, and even for noteworthy experiences in after-school programs.


Sidebar: After-school endorsements


“We have report cards and exams that tell us how students are doing with hard skills,” says Amanda Rose Fuller, a manager of one the nation’s most extensive badging programs at Aurora Public Schools outside Denver. “What we want to know is about 21st century skills—that really gives us a narrative about our learners.”

Districts have also found badges give educators extra motivation to progress through professional development units. Teachers now display badges by the doors of their classrooms, in email signatures and on their websites.

“A microcredential acknowledges the professional in every educator,” says Cate Tolnai, an academic technology specialist who oversees a PD badging program operated by the Santa Clara County Office of Education in California, which covers districts across Silicon Valley.


Sidebar: How to build a badging program


The initiative even led one district to give a $250 stipend to teachers who complete a series of microcredentials.

“It allows teachers some personal choice in their own growth,” Tolnai says. “It also creates cultures of celebration.”

While badging may not yet rank as highly as blended learning or makerspaces among today’s powerful edtech trends, they are gaining momentum as a tool that students and educators can use to paint a fuller picture of their knowledge and skills.

They aren’t just icons

Corona-Norco USD near Los Angeles found a few years ago that digital badges fit perfectly with its “Passport to Success” college-career readiness program.

Rather than using old-fashioned stamps to document students’ progress along various learning pathways, badges allowed educators to gamify the process and make it more engaging for tech-driven youngsters, says April Moore, the district’s director of educational technology.

Students, starting in elementary school, can earn badges for soft skills such as work habits and attendance. In middle grades, students receive badges for developing high school-to-college transition plans. High schoolers can collect badges for proficient scores on college-entrance exams.

The badges offer far more than a digital “good job” sticker. Because they are stored on an open, online platform developed by the district, the badges—when clicked on—reveal the tasks the student completed. They can even contain links to videos and other digital evidence of new skills.

“Earning badges motivates students for the next steps in their journey,” Moore says. Moore and her team conduct regular focus groups with students to find out what additional badges should be created. Students convinced the district to issue badges for skills learned in electives such as choir, robotics and video production.

“These help students define themselves and set themselves apart from others,” Moore says. “They are the things that make them unique.”

Much of the badging process is automated—meaning no extra work for classroom teachers. The district’s badging system tracks when grades are published and issues badges to students who have passed their electives. The badges are then displayed in a digital backpack.

The system also keeps analytics so Moore can determine if students are sharing their badges on social media.  

Finally, Corona-Norco’s badging system can keep score—one district high school allows students to trade in points for football tickets, T-shirt and gift cards. Corona-Norco’s community also jumped on the district’s badging bandwagon. For example, the local fire department issues badges to students who complete a CPR training course.

Corona-Norco, with 51 schools and 53,000 students, believes it has likely issued more digital badges—about 800,000—than any district in the U.S. Eventually, the district plans to expand the system so students can share their badge collections with college admissions departments and potential employers.

Backed by local business

Aurora Public Schools, another early leader, gives out shareable, open badges endorsed by local businesses and other community partners.

When one of its 40,000 students earns a “Summit Badge”—issued for collaboration, critical thinking, information literacy, invention and self-direction—they unlock an opportunity to have an experience with a local business.

Elementary students may get a classroom visit from a business owner while older students will spend a day shadowing an employee at The Home Depot, McDonald’s, an auto-body shop or another local employer. They then receive an additional badge reflecting the experience that is endorsed by the business and can be added to a résumé.

The digital badging team worked with the businesses to ensure the characteristics reflected in the Summit Badges aligned with the skills needed in the workforce, says Fuller, the badging manager.

“These business are confirming our badging system—or making adjustments,” she says. “Of every business we’ve put this in front of, there’s never been one that said, ‘I don’t get this.’ What we hear is that they want applicants to have these skills.”

These experiences have also opened up new opportunities to low-income students who may not spend extensive time outside their neighborhood and therefore may not be aware of the job possibilities that exist elsewhere in the Denver area.

Fuller says she won early adoption from staff by not making badges extra work for teachers. For example, seventh-graders in a literature class had to connect song lyrics to characters in books they were reading. This activity, which they were already doing, entitled them to “analysis” and “evidences” badges.

“This wasn’t even the part of the project the teacher was giving the grade on,” Fuller says. “But you can see the engagement and enthusiasm, especially with elementary and middle school students. As soon as you talk about badging, they want one.”

As of May, Aurora had issued about 8,700 badges—including 480 of the higher-level Summit Badges—to 4,500 different students.

Motivating educators

Badges have also gained substantial momentum in professional development. In the Alamance-Burlington School System in North Carolina, teachers earn tech apprentice and master badges on the way to getting Chromebook carts for their classrooms, Superintendent Bill Harrison says.

The badges play an important role in a new two-year PD progression that develops teachers’ skills in integrating technology and creating blended learning environments. Teachers who earn badges become trainers.

“It’s created motivation and excitement, but I think the big thing is it’s personalized,” Harrison says. “People can pick and choose within the context of our framework.”

Harrison hopes to tie badges to increased financial compensation.

Northside ISD in San Antonio, Texas, has reached the point where teachers ask, “Do I get a badge for this?” when they sign up for tech-oriented PD sessions, says Dana Bickley, an academic technology coordinator at the district.

“Principals don’t have a lot of money, so we’re looking to recognize all of the great work that’s happening,” Bickley says. “We want to give that little bit of recognition to those teachers who try new things.”

Teachers in Northside, which has 100 schools, can earn badges from the academic tech department for demonstrating soft skills such as collaboration and leadership, or for leading a Twitter chat, among other activities.

Academic technology staff are constantly on the lookout for teachers who have experimented with online instruction and other new teaching methods, Bickley says.

The badges are also having a viral effect. Teachers who spot badges on their colleagues’ email signatures or websites become intrigued about how to earn their own, adds Doug Shudde, Northside’s director of academic technology, library and instructional materials.

“The badges start conversations,” Shudde concludes. “And they help grow the initiatives and programs for which they’re issued.”


Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.